Fremont is one of the earliest neighborhoods of Seattle as it began to be populated by some of the first arrivals of white settlers in the 1850’s. Many aspects of Fremont today can be traced back to an especially strong period of development in the 1880’s. Active Seattleite Henry Yesler headed the Lake Washington Improvement Company and in 1883 he bought some of a former homestead claim in Fremont for a place to create a canal at the northwest corner of Lake Union. That same year Judge Thomas Burke bought some of the Fremont former-homestead land for the right-of-way of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad. The railroad route has come down to us today as the Burke-Gilman Trail.
In contrast, Wedgwood is a neighborhood which slept quietly until well after the year 1900. Property records show ownership of land but with no one in residence in Wedgwood except for a period of homestead claims in the 1870’s. The neighborhood really began to grow after 1923-1926 when water and electric utilities became available in Wedgwood. The biggest growth period in Wedgwood and the forming of the neighborhood identity finally came in 1945-1960 with the post-World-War-Two housing boom in north Seattle.
Among the hardy adventurers who came to Seattle in the 1850’s was William A. Strickler. In 1855 Strickler applied to the US Government Land Office to do a survey, meaning that the land in the Seattle area would be marked into sections so that it could be claimed. The story of the survey party’s summer visit to Sand Point is told in HistoryLink Essay 2215 by Greg Lange, Seattle history and property research expert. The six-man survey team included two ax men who would help by chopping through branches and underbrush. There were two chain men who carried a measuring chain something like the goal measuring tool used in a football game. One man held the compass to guide the survey along straight lines.
The surveyors walked in grid patterns to mark out sections so that homesteaders could file land claims. This first survey in Seattle was designated as Township 25 and extended from downtown Seattle to NE 85th Street, which today is in the heart of Wedgwood. The surveyors kept field notes, recording any landmarks or features such as lakes. Green Lake acquired its name from this 1855 survey which noted that the color of the water was green. It is disappointing that for the Wedgwood area, the surveyors did not remark upon any features except for a steep drop-off as they walked east on what is now NE 85th Street. We can visualize the survey party starting at Wedgwood’s main commercial intersection of NE 85th Street on 35th Avenue NE, present site of Rite-Aid and QFC, and walking east until they came to the Maple Creek Ravine.
Because 85th Street was the northern limit of Township 25, for nearly one hundred years 85th Street was considered to be as far as Seattle would ever grow. Finally in 1954 the city limits were set at 145th Street. Today the southern half of Wedgwood is in Township 25, up to NE 85th Street, and the northern half is in Township 26. That is why Wedgwood houses north of NE 85th Street have curbside mailboxes, because Township 26 had been a rural delivery route instead of the door-to-door walking route of mail for houses south of NE 85th Street.
The Fremont neighborhood grew up with the city of Seattle, and its early development was largely due to its advantageous geographical position: Fremont is located north of downtown at the northwest corner of Lake Union. It was an ideal setting for water-dependent industry such as a sawmill, and people could commute to downtown via boats from this early suburb. Fremont acquired its name in 1888 when it was platted by two men from Fremont, Nebraska, along with local investor Edward Corliss Kilbourne who had arrived in Seattle in 1883 from Illinois. But long before acquiring its name, the Fremont area had already attracted the interest of Seattle’s earliest white settlers.
After all of the territory that William Strickler had seen during the land survey of the summer of 1855, he chose for himself a claim in what is now the commercial district of Fremont, from North 34th to 39th Streets. There William Strickler’s survey party noted that they stepped across a small stream. This stream was at the northwest corner of Lake Union. In the 1880’s the stream was widened and was called The Outlet, and a gated “splash dam” was built at The Outlet so that water could be released with enough force to float logs to the sawmill on Lake Union. Beginning in the 1850′s Seattleites saw that it would be possible to cut a canal and that is how Lake Union got its name: the thought was to go through and unite a waterway from Puget Sound to Lake Washington. But they were ahead of their time; the Ship Canal would not be completed until 1917.
The Fremont sawmill was only the first of many activities which made Fremont a hub of business and transportation radiating out to other neighborhoods. Since E.C. Kilbourne was a co-owner of land in Fremont he directed electric streetcar lines towards Fremont and advertised it as a convenient place to live, so that he could sell house lots. He was an investor in boat service over to Fremont from what is now the park, maritime and museum site at South Lake Union. Because of its convenience, good connections and development of industry, Fremont grew with housing for mill workers and all the amenities of a neighborhood such as grocery stores, schools and churches. Fremont’s heritage is still evident in present times, such as in B.F. Day Elementary, the oldest continuously operating school in the Seattle system.
Another early resident of the Fremont area was John Ross, a trapper who is considered to be the first white settler in Fremont because he filed a homestead claim in 1853. The Ross claim included land on both sides of what is now the Ship Canal and the site of Seattle Pacific University. On the north side of the Canal, Ross Playground at 4320 4th Ave NW is the former site of the Ross family schoolhouse of 1873. All Seattle-area homesteaders fled their claims during the Puget Sound Indian War of October 1855 to January 1856, and John Ross’s cabin was burned down by the Indians during the conflict. Ross did not return to his claim property for more than fifteen years. By that time he had a wife and children and the fear of attack by Indians was in the past.
The earliest Wedgwood residents were Civil War veterans of the Union Army who came to Seattle from other states of the USA in the 1870’s, about ten years after the end of the Civil War. These settlers came to start new lives “out West.” Because of the availability of land in Washington Territory, veterans could receive free land in credit for time served in the war.
In the 1870’s the Weedins from Missouri and the Kenyons from Michigan (all Civil War veterans) filed homestead claims in Wedgwood. Land in Wedgwood was still available twenty years after Strickler’s survey; no other white settlers had yet claimed it. This shows how “far out” Wedgwood was, and that because it was not located on or near a body of water, the neighborhood did not develop as an early business and transportation hub like Fremont. Wedgwood’s homesteaders stayed about a dozen years and then moved on, and property records show the sales transactions of their claim properties. All of Capt. DeWitt C. Kenyon’s land was bought by Charles H. Baker and a group of investors in 1888. But property records do not show anyone living on this land in Wedgwood until after 1900.
Unlike Fremont’s early development which parallels the founding and growth of Seattle beginning in the 1850’s, Wedgwood did not really get going as a neighborhood until the 1920’s, when neighbors began organizing schools, clubs, churches and a private bus service. Fremont was one of the earliest recipients of electric streetcar service in 1889, though electricity wasn’t available in private homes in Seattle until after 1900. Wedgwood didn’t have electricity of any kind until 1923. Wedgwood finally acquired an identity during the population boom following World War Two in the 1940’s. Fremont received its name in 1888, had a post office in 1890 and in 1891, with a population of 5,000 people, Fremont was annexed to Seattle. Wedgwood finally got into the city limits in 1954 and got a post office in 1965.
For further reference:
HistoryLink has a number of essays about the Fremont neighborhood, including a Thumbnail History in Essay #1320. Wedgwood’s Thumbnail History is Essay #3462. Essay #10221 about the Montlake Cut by HistoryLink writer Jennifer Ott gives an excellent overview of Seattle’s efforts to dig canals for the transport of raw materials, including Fremont’s Outlet.
Seattle School histories can be found at this link in an alphabetical list.
Seattle Department of Neighborhoods has mini-history articles listed as “context statements.” The Fremont context statement was done as part of a survey of historic housing in Fremont in 2009, in which I participated.
The original, handwritten 1855 Land Status & Cadastral Survey Field Notes, Bureau of Land Management, can be read on-line. In the search form you must enter Township 25 North and Range 4 East for Wedgwood south of NE 85th Street. The BLM site is difficult to use and I found it easier to read the field notes on squares of microform at the UW Library; the only technical ability required there is to turn on the light of the reading lamp.